frequently asked questions - lifespark - movement against the death penalty

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frequently asked questions

being a pen pal

1. How to start a correspondence with a pen pal

about requirements, receiving an inmate’s address, writing the first letter and receiving a first answer, problems in a penpalship and what if I’ m afraid about the execution of my pen friend-to-be

2. Questions concerning the pen pal

about the life situation and outside-contacts of a death row inmate, how an inmate gets on the lifespark waiting list,  if I can chose my penfriend and what if the pen pal has committed a heinous crime


3. Questions about letter writing, prisons and visits

about what and how frequently I should to write, what to send beside letters (money?), visiting the penpal and quitting the penpalship

4. Questions about lifespark

about why we require a membership before we give out an address, the benefits of a membership, the usage of membership fees, what lifespark does for the abolishment of the death penalty and how to get information about the death penalty and a penpalship


1. How to start a correspondence with a pen pal

Do I need to meet any prerequisites if I want to write to an inmate?
You need to be 18 years old to be accepted as a pen pal by lifespark and to receive the address of an inmate. From experience we know that it needs some life experience, stamina, and empathy in order to keep a penpalship going. Inmates usually write in English, some in Spanish. We recommend that you write at least one letter per month - if you are not sure that you will have enough time for a regular correspondence, you should not start a penpalship. Besides, anybody who decides to become a pen pal will receive advice and assistance from lifespark.

How long does it take for me to receive an inmate’s address?
To lay a solid foundation of penpalships, it is important for us to encourage deliberate decisions. Therefore, when you want to become involved with lifespark, our contact person is happy to provide you with more information about being a pen pal to an inmate on death row. The next step is a phone- (or skype-) interview where you can ask open questions. Only when all questions have been addressed and you’re positive about starting a penpalship, you’ll receive an address and further information, such as our statutes and some hints on how to write the first letter to your pen pal.

Will my pen friend definitely answer my first letter?
Unfortunately, sometimes an inmate doesn’t write back. There are several possible reasons for this: he may well have not received the letter, i.e. due to an unclearly written address or relocation to another prison. Or he may be suffering from depression and doesn’t answer any letters. It is very frustrating when the first letter to an inmate is not answered. We suggest that after three weeks you send a second letter. If you don’t receive a reply to the second letter either, you can request the address of another inmate.

What problems can turn up in a penpalship?
Any new member of lifespark will be provided with information and helpful advice regarding various difficult situations that can take place in a penpalship, e.g. sexual allusions by the inmate, jealousy, claims for financial support, psychological problems, etc. We also recommend to think about boundaries you’d like to set in regard to these topics, clarify them with your penpal in the beginning of your correspondence and stick to them. Also, lifespark’s contact person can be contacted for support at any time.

What if I am afraid about the execution of my pen friend-to-be?
Very sadly, most penpalships are terminated by the inmate’s execution. You must be aware of that when you begin a penpalship. However, many of our members have already experienced this, some have also attended an execution. You can contact them at any time to get help and support. We also have special information about executions that can answer many questions concerning the topic. On the long run, the painful experience of an execution doesn’t necessarily have to become a trauma, but can be a turning point in life which leads to a more mature and conscious biography. Have a look at our reports on execution at reports and interviews.



2. Questions concerning the pen pal

What is the life situation of a death row inmate?
Death row inmates in the USA – mostly men – are awaiting their execution for years, often decades, during which they live under conditions beneath human dignity. They spend most their time in a tiny, sparse single-cell and are not allowed to work. In many cases, relatives and friends turn away over the course of time, so the world literally stays outside. With every person that reaches out to a death row prisoner by writing letters, a new window to the world opens. Not all prisoners are good at expressing themselves by writing, but they all long to be perceived as human beings with thoughts and feelings - just the way we all do.

How does an inmate get on lifespark’s waiting list for a pen pal?
Inmates know about lifespark from verbal propaganda; prison employees do not tell them about us or help them to get in touch with lifespark. The inmates write to lifespark themselves and ask for a pen friend. They receive a response from the pen pal coordinator confirming that they are on the waiting list. Usually, it takes about a year for an inmate to get a pen pal.

Will I be the only person outside the prison my pen pal will be in touch with?
We don’t know if an inmate has friends or family with whom he is in touch (but we believe this would be positive for the inmate in his lonesome situation). It is possible that inmates have several pen pals they write to. However, all inmates on our waiting list will only get one pen pal through lifespark, as our list is very long.

Can I choose my pen friend?
Neither inmates nor our members can choose whom they get as a pen pal. You can choose the state, i.e. if you have friends or relatives there. If you speak Spanish, that is also a factor. Otherwise, you simply receive the first inmate on the waiting list.
Lifespark has good experience with this way of arranging penpalships. We’re not a dating agency and also do not want to classify inmates. We simply arrange a penpalship between two people. In all likelihood, you will receive a male inmate’s address as we very rarely have women on the waiting list.

I fear that my pen pal has committed a heinous crime, one involving women or children. Would it be possible to write to an inmate who has not committed such a heinous crime or who regrets what he did?
We arrange penpalships for inmates who want to have a pen pal; "death row" and "wanting a pen pal" are our only criteria. We do not look at the crime committed or whether the inmate regrets his crime, and would like our members to be open-minded regarding the inmate they are assigned. Helping an inmate to experience remorse should not be the intention of beginning a penpalship. A supportive correspondence can be a chance for personal development (on both sides), but in the end, this is everyone’s personal decision. If you feel uncomfortable about this, please mention it during the telephone interview or feel free contact our contact person.



3. Questions about letter writing, prisons and visits

How frequently should I write?
Penpalships can be of different intensity. It depends entirely upon you and your pen pal, and we recommend to reach a mutual agreement with your correspondent. A letter is on its way about one week each way, because it has to pass through the prison's mailroom in both directions. As rule of thumb, you should answer a letter within a week after its arrival. This results in about writing two letters a month. You should be able to invest that time if you would like to start a penpalship.

What shall I write about to my pen pal? Shall I address his crime?
The two pen pals must find out for themselves what their topics of conversation will be. Generally, the prisoners appreciate it very much when you tell them about your everyday life. It gives them the feeling of being able to follow your life or even to be part of it.
It depends upon the inmate as to whether the crime which brought him to death row will ever be a subject of conversation. Some speak about it, others don't. By no means should you urge him to tell you about it. It can also be for legal reasons that he excludes the subject.

What can I send to my pen pal aside from letters?
Photos and postcards are always very much appreciated. Most prisons allow books to be sent through, and sometimes you are able to subscribe to a journal for your pen pal as well. However, various prisons have particular rules which have to be strictly followed, otherwise your mailing is denied. We provide so-called state sheets with a lot of information in this regard. As a new member, you’ll receive the sheet of your penpals’ state together with his address. The regularly updated state sheets of all states can be found on our website in the "members only" section.

Should I send money to my pen pal?
You can send money to your penpal, but nobody is obliged and the inmate has no right to demand it. However, we suggest that our members, whenever possible, at least pay for the penpalship, i.e. transferring as much money to the prisoner as he needs for buying stamps and writing materials. Please note that it is not allowed to send money directly to your pen friend’s address! You can find the information on how to proceed on the respective state sheet as well as a list of different possibilities how to send money in the "members only" section of our website.

Can I visit my pen pal?
Yes, it is possible to visit your pen pal. Such a personal meeting usually is an unforgettable experience for both. To be able to visit your pen pal, you must first be registered on his visitation list. This bureaucratic act may take a while, so you should initiate it about three months in advance. Instructions on how to proceed can be found on the corresponding state sheet or on special travel sheets which we provide to all members. Also, several lifespark members have already visited their pen pals and are happy to give advice. For reports about visits, go to reports and interviews.

Can I quit the penpalship if the inmate and I don’t get on well with each other?
If at all possible, a penpalship should not be terminated. We observe that in most cases, questions can be solved and problems settled in a personal conversation with our penpal coordinator or one of lifespark’s board members. Exchanging experiences with another member of lifespark can be very encouraging and helpful too, and we have written information regarding many questions and problems which can arise in a penpalship. So we encourage members to be somewhat patient if the penpalship should not turn out to be as expected – in many cases, a correspondence which seems difficult in the beginning will become interesting and stimulating over time.
Therefore, if you feel uncomfortable about your penpalship or have a problem, please contact the pen pal coordinator as early as possible; s/he is able to intervene as a moderator between inmate and pen pal. If you quit your penpalship, please to inform your penpal as well as lifespark, as the inmate is then able to receive another pen pal.



4. Questions about lifespark

Do I have to be a member of lifespark in order to get an address?
Yes. When people start a new correspondence, we want them to become members of lifespark in order to ensure direct support and assistance, especially when the pen pal-ship introduces some difficult issues to be dealt with. Exchanging thoughts and experiences with other members of lifespark can be very beneficial too. The membership fee for one year is CHF 50.- or the equivalent in EURO. Find the account number on our website under contact us.

How can I benefit from my membership at lifespark?
Lifespark offers its members an extensive service such as practical help with pen pal-ships, a network with like-minded people, a regular info-service about the death penalty and occasions to get active against the death penalty. We also issue an internal newsletter three times a year with various information and contributions from our members. Find a detailed list of our offers under what we offer.
Also, we attach high importance to the linking-up of our members in regular meetings and events which all members are invited to set up. If you would like to organize something, please contact the board. Upcoming meetings, events and projects are listed under events and projects.

What happens with the membership fees?
At lifespark, all active members holding a task are volunteers, i.e. unpaid. A part of the membership fees is used for our expenses which are mainly for postage and printing costs of the newsletter which comes out three times a year. Most of the membership fees are donated to US organizations which are opposed to the death penalty. In doing so, the money is more effectually used than by initiating actions from Switzerland.

How can I get information about the death penalty?
There is some information on our website. Our members receive further actual information in our newsletters or via e-mail. Besides, there are many other websites relating to the death penalty. Find more in our website-section movement against the death penalty.

What does lifespark do for the abolishment of the death penalty?
Beside supporting related US organizations financially and setting a sign with our pen pal-ships, we try to inform the public as often as possible about the death penalty and to draw attention to our association: we provide interviews for journals and magazines to present ourselves and our work, set up stands, organize lectures and joint projects with Amnesty International and ACAT. These activities are based on member’s initiatives, so we recommend that all our members find out more about the expansive subject of the death penalty and take part in petitions and mailing campaigns. You can find our recent media activities on our website under lifespark in the media.

Where can I get answers to my questions about a pen pal-ship?
Each member receives a list with people who take an active part in lifespark. When you have a question, you can contact the appropriate person directly. Basically, it is always possible to contact the regional contact person as well.


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